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  • The Women Who Danced for a Living:Exploring Taxi Dancers’ Childhood in Chicago’s Polish American Communities, 1920–1926

On 11 March 1926, Mary Selinski, a sixteen-year-old taxi dancer who worked at the New Majestic Dancing Academy, was arrested after Chicago police raided her apartment.1 While the youth awaited a hearing, a worker from the Juvenile Protective Association (JPA) arranged a home visit to investigate her parents on behalf of the court. Selinski’s parents, who had emigrated from Poland in the 1890s, lived on the third floor of a tenement building in Chicago’s Logan Square area, a workingclass community on Chicago’s northwest side. In a report on the family’s home conditions, the JPA officer described her conversation with Mary’s mother as strained because of Mrs. Selinski’s broken English. The meeting was further complicated by the woman’s fear of disturbing her fifty-nine-year-old husband, Alexander, who worked as a night watchman at the nearby Deering Harvester Works. Mary’s mother sought to avoid confrontation with her husband, whom she described “as drunk most of the time,” insisting that they speak in the kitchen in whispers.

Mrs. Selinski explained that Mary was the youngest of four children. George, the oldest son, had recently left home due to a turbulent relationship with his father. Her other children, Joe, age nineteen, and Anna, age eighteen, both had jobs and were contributing substantial financial support to the family. Her youngest daughter, Mary, had left school at fourteen. Mary had then used her sister’s work certificate to secure employment at the Chicago Telephone Company, where she had been working as a longdistance operator for a year and a half. Despite having steady work, she left home in early January 1926 because, as her mother explained, “her father in a drunken fury had driven her away.” [End Page 247]

After moving out of her family home, Mary began working as a “taxi dancer” to supplement her wages. Additional work made it possible for her to live independently from her family and escape an abusive father. Mary rented an apartment in one of Chicago’s rooming-house districts with three other taxi dancers. The women’s apartment had been searched by the JPA and later raided by the police, who had received an anonymous tip. Mary and her roommates were arrested. Although there were no clear charges and her roommates were later released, Selinski tested positive for syphilis after the court’s mandatory venereal disease exam. She was sent to Lawndale Hospital, where she received medical treatment and awaited her pending court appearance. The JPA officer told Mrs. Selinski that her daughter was in the hospital with “a venereal infection.” Until her age could be verified, the officer explained, she would be transferred to one of Chicago’s juvenile detention homes.

Mary Selinski’s story shares several common elements with many of the biographical fragments contained in sociologist Paul G. Cressey’s research files. A graduate student at the University of Chicago’s School of Sociology, Cressey frequented Chicago’s taxi dance halls over the course of two years.2 His research was published in 1932 as The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life. Cressey identified the taxi dance hall as one of at least fourteen different types of public dancing establishments that had emerged in the city of Chicago during the 1920s. Taxi dance halls, or “closed dance halls,” were unregulated commercial dance venues where women contracted their services for a commission as dance instructors to a male-only clientele.3 [End Page 248] Taxi dance halls were often concealed on the upper floors of buildings and advertised as “dancing schools” or “dancing academies.”4

From 1926 to 1928, Cressey immersed himself in these “hidden halls” as he purchased dances, engaged in conversations, and documented the life stories of many taxi dancers. Piecing together these life histories not only gives one a sense of the variety and scope of taxi dancers’ experiences but also explains some of the circumstances that led them to Chicago’s taxi dance halls. Although Chicago’s taxi dancers represented...

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